Monthly Archives: April 2019

CREDITORS              Jermyn Street Theatre

DEADLY DEBTS 

 

   The artistic  love affair between  August Strindberg’s ghost,  playwright Howard Brenton and  director Tom Littler continues to bear strange fruit,  surprisingly exhilarating.  There was Brenton’s brilliant  portrait of the playwright’s breakdown in THE BLINDING LIGHT (https://tinyurl.com/y4wzaya6 ) , some Dances of Death, and now the return of their Miss Julie  (revived in rep with this one, original review https://tinyurl.com/y3qf49rt )    And as a penultimate rendering – for they still plan another –  we get this furious three-hander . 

 

       It is set on the usual  godforsaken Nordic island with a ferry expected,  on which has arrived Gustaf  (a suave David Sturzaker) who the ex-husband of the lovely and worryingly independent Tekla.   She’s away, so he’s playing mind-games with her new, younger artist husband Adolf (James Sheldon).  In their long,  horribly funny opening colloquy,  the most evil of male-bonding demonstrations,  he persuades the poor sap of the following fallacies:  

  1.   that he is there to support and save him 
  2. that he must stop painting because the new era requires the more realistic medium of sculpture (evidence onstage suggests the poor sap is not much good at it:   there’s one rather porny female shape there and a lot of spoiled clay)   
  3. that the only hope of avoiding death from a painful “epilepsy” is to abstain from sexual congress, because “skirts” are a terrible trap and woman is “a man who’s incomplete, a child who stops growing, an anaemic who haemhorrages thirteen times a year..what can you expect from such a creature?”

       

        This,  highly entertaining in Brenton’s vivid language, is the first part of the 90 minute play.  Next, Gustaf sneaks off,  Tekla arrives  – a confident and rather cheerful figure  played with brio by Dorothea Myer-Bennett,  who will become the rather sourer  Miss Julie in the other play .    She and Adolf have an equally stressed-out, ambiguous, sexually confused conversation. At one glorious moment, Adolf emotes at great length about how he supported her career as a novelist and wore his own artistic soul  out doing it,    whereon she snaps: 

  “Are you saying you wrote my books?”

  and he moans:  

     “For five minutes I’ve tried to lay out the nuances, the halftones of our relationship…” . 

    Goodness, it could be any Hampstead media power-couple falling out today.   As Adolf limps off for some fresh air,  Gustaf returns and tries to get Tekla on his side, but she’s not falling for it.  Or is she? 

 

      Forgive my levity.  But an undertow of deliberate comedy  is certainly there in Brenton and Littler’s fascination with poor crazy furious brilliant August Strindberg.   They relish lines like “You vindictive bastard!    “You dissolute tart!”     And arter all, themes of sexual intensity, and furious confusion about who in a marriage owes what to whom, are actually timeless.   And the mutual rants are rather refreshing, in an age when none of us is allowed to be  that rude and unreasonable for fear or triggering some wuss. 

          Fair enough.   Angst  is a reasonable mindset when the original  author is broke, furious, hanging out in a derelict castle in the middle of Nordic nowhere in 1888 with three young children,  a wife,   a psychopathic fake gipsy and a dodgy Countess.  Moreover Strindberg, like his hated rival  Ibsen,  was struggling violently and not unreasonably to escape the 19th century and its dead-end sexual and marital mores. Not to mention trying to come to terms with his own stormy head.   

      But for heavens sake buy,  and keep ,  the programme-playscript:   the essay on the rival Nordic furies  by Brenton is both informative and hilarious.  

 

Box office 0207 287 2875 www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk  

playing in rep with Miss Julie  to  1 June

rating  three 3 Meece Rating, as it’s mainly worth it as a well-delivered curiosity  . 

Here’s a troubled Strindberg  bonus mouse though, writing rapidly in a furyPlaywright Mouse resized 

  

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THIS IS MY FAMILY Minerva, Chichester

ANOTHER KIND OF LOVE SONG 

     

 

    This is gorgeous.  Funny,  truthful, wise,  and bravely original in form.   Anyone with a a family – past, present, remembered, or merely observed in cautious auntly incredulity    should see  Tim Firth’s musical.  Or, more accurately, musical play:  it has no traditional blockbusting numbers and no choruses – though sometimes the characters sing across each other in their own preoccupations.   The junctions between singing and speech in fact are so natural that you hardly notice them and its lovely insouciance makes you feel as if breaking into song is the obvious extension of emphasis:   a heightening of what needs to be said or thought in the frenetic pace of ordinary life.  

   

  It is operatic  yet as natural as birdsong;   barkingly funny at times, but never oversignalling its jokes,  poignant but never mawkish.    Emotions or absurdities just bubble up in exasperations all families feel.  It’s a gem.   Daniel Evans opened it at the Crucible in  June 2013, and I cooed with delight then (“enchanting, sweet as a nut, glorying in grumpy family love”.)    Now leading Chichester, he brings it back r  con amore,   revised and musically tweaked.  But the enchantment lives on:  just go!

  

        The story is slight:  Nicky –  Kirsty MacLaren convincingly and marvellously playing a bright, observant  13 –  has won a competition for an essay on “My Family”.  There’s  her sullen 17-year-old brother Matt, Grandma May who sings hymns but listens to the cricket during the sermon, her parents Steve and Yvonne ,  whose tale of their first romantic meeting on a campsite she cherishes.  Oh, and auntie Sian whose romantic career is rather wilder.  Firth’s script,  sitcom-funny but raised to emotional truth by the music,  beautifully evokes the parents’ midlife mutual exasperation .

  

    James Nesbitt’s Steve with a  mid-life bloke crisis is beyond priceless:  rollerskates, free-running,  learning Arabic to impress the Abu Dhabi owners of his company,  and a running series of equally ill-executed and unnecessary DIY projects.  A home-made hot tub in the rockery electrocutes a frog.   Yvonne (Clare Burt, subtle and funny and sad)  is losing her grip on who she is, as the children spread their wings.    Matt – at 17 “on life’s mezzanine”, responds to parental questions with a furious sea-lion bark and flap; he   has gone Goth and done a pagan handfasting marriage ceremony with his girlfriend, who inevitably dumps him.   Auntie Sian careers on down the love-track,  and her song “Sex is a safari park” ought to be top of the charts for years.   Grandma May  (Sheila Hancock, a marvel) is gradually fading mentally:  losing the words of old hymns,  feeling the mist of confusion rise, swirl,  form into old memories,   then clear.    Throughout the play all the family relationships are spot-on, heartshakingly credible.

    

         And the plot?  Nicky’s prize is a holiday of her choice:  as her understated worry about her parents’ separate fractiousness grows, she opts to return to the lakeside camp where they first met.  So they all do.  Richard Kent’s lovely cluttered dollshouse set does some revolving magic,  the rain pelts down, the tent – well, we’ve all been there.  

 

    Everything resolves, but let’s not spoil it.   The tune which Firth’s characters sing is all our songs;  their tale evokes splendours and sorrows of every family on every street.     The jokes work wonders.  “Love is when you’ve sucked off all the chocolate and find that what you’re left with is the nut”.  But so do the truths:   “It isn’t the fault of the star that we’ve stopped seeing it”.    

 

box office   www.cft.org.uk   to 15 June

rating  5    5 Meece Rating

    

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GHOSTS Royal, Northampton

A CLEANSING FURY FROM THE 1880s

 

 

    Wipes you out every time,  Ibsen’s furious, shocking,  violent assault on the cruel decayed conventions  of his century’s end.   Its indecency –  a plot driven by syphilis, prostitution,  illegitimacy,  female victimhood and religious hypocrisy    capsized his first.  “A loathsome sore unbandaged; a dirty act done publicly…. Gross, almost putrid indecorum….an open drain”.      The century since has at least understood that in art such drains are vital and contemplation of appalling things sometimes necessary.  But this was no self-indulgent modern Sarah-Kanery or Edward-Bondism:   it rises to its real greatness in  the bitter, clear-eyed author’s truthfulness about human bonds: not only  between mother and son but in  the dead, thwarted affection between Mrs Alving and the absurd Pastor Manders.

    

      In other words I revere the play, and feared a little that after Richard Eyre’s devastating , taut 100-minute version which last sent me reeling out into the street,  I would have misgivings about returning to two acts with  Lucy Bailey’s production and a Mike Poulton script.  However,  Bailey is always good at finding and expressing the violent shocks of any play.  And this she does here, from the first moments when  in the elegant sea-green set of the decorous Alving home   Declan Conlon’s crude dangerous Engstrand hurls his supposed daughter Regina to the floor.  She shrinks from his touch. And Poulton’s careful wording, here and later in an aside by Mrs Alving,  suggests more strongly than usual yet another “putrid indecorum”;  he’s a sexual abuser as well as a bully.  

   

        All through, indeed,  the physicality of  Bailey’s direction serves the play well,  right through the taut explanatory scenes between Helen and Pator Manders, to the final moments when Pierro Niel-Mee’s Osvald grapples and begs for a merciful death (“I gave you life!” “Take it back!”).   The lighting is expressive,  the pretty green darkening to an underwater tone suggesting the monstrosities below the bourgeois surface, then at last lightening  with the thin Norwgian sunlight.   Light is at the play’s symbolic core,  in   Helen’s furious “possessed by the decaying spirits of the dead…we are pathetically afraid of the light!”.  

         

    James Wilby as Pastor Manders has a famously difficult task.   He is both a caricatured absurdity    on discovering Regina’s origin he has the nerve only to worry that it “made a mockery of the sacrament of marriage”, which reminded me oddly of ex-Pope Benedict’s recent essay worrying mostly about the status of the Eucharist when speaking of a raped altar-server.   Manders is a booby, a blinkered believer proud of having “crushed the rebellious spirit” in Helen Alving;   and yet we have to believe also that he was the friend to whom she once ran for help, and that they shared a thwarted love.   Wilby just about achieves this, because despite Manders’ terrible statements he physically exudes a kind of clerically suppressed amiability.  

 

 Niel-Mee’s Osvald is strong, too, rising from stiff sullen boyishness  to raging terror and helpless pleading.  But towering above them all, as she always should,   is Mrs Alving.  Penny Downie ,   aquiline and elegant,  is the conscience and heart and victim of the play:  she needs to convey a passionate heart, questioning moral intelligence,  gentleness,  terror, anger, quiet observation,  and an edge of fond mocking humour,  in that extraordinary moment when she sees through Manders yet again,  affectionately and without rancour.   Penny Downie achieves all this.  I would watch it right through again simply to see that performance.   If this were a London production and thus eligible,  I’d glue myself to Albert Hall to demand that the woman gets an Olivier.

 

www.royalandderngate.co.uk    to  11 May

rating four   4 Meece Rating

        

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OTHER PEOPLE’S MONEY              Southwark Playhouse, SE1

THE WORLD DONALD GREW UP IN…      

 

  It’s a long transverse stage:  at one end  at a scruffy crowded steel desk sits Jorgy, Michael Brandon exuding down-home amiability as the longtime head of a New England wire and cable company.  Not so profitable these days,  but jogging along, keeping 1200 jobs in the fading division ,   no outstanding liabilities, no breaches of health and safety law. Decent values.  At the far end facing him is a sleek black desk under a fake Picasso,   and the huge figure of Larry the liquidator:  Rob Locke as a massive,  dougHnut-addicted and majestically pinstriped vulture capitalist.  He is buying his way in, bit by bit,   to take control of Jorgy’s company,  close the unprofitable bit and strip the assets.  This is gladiatorial,   Wall Street versus Main- Street-USA.     Even in 1989, as the lawyer Kate says, it is  “what’s happening’.

 

 So how nicely appropriate of Katharine Farmer and Blue Touch Paper productions to  open  this 1989 play by Jerry Sterner on the very day we learned that President Trump gets a State Visit this summer.   Trump, apparently, saw it and loved it on its first outing.  It is almost a fable:    Jorgy, and his loyal PA Bea  (Lin Blakley, a lovely portrait of female loyalty)   represent the decent American business  dream of Harry S Truman,   as opposed to the less-decent American reality of Trump Tower.  Larry is entertainingly frank about the only point of anything being to get money, get it right now, and enjoy the shootout on the way.    “In the old Westerns, didn’t everyone wanna be the gunslinger?”.   But once, as Jorgy says,at least the robber barons left traces like banks, railroads and mines. Now it’s just a trail of theoretical paper.

 

 

    Brandon is a likeable Jorgy, never wavering,  exuding decency,  but rising to eloquence only  in his final plea to shareholders.  More anxious is his deputy and likely heir Billy (a weasel-sharp Mark Rose)   who begs the insouciant Larry to wait two years before his wrecking operation,   so he can save his career.   Bea’s daughter Kate  (Amy Burke)  is a NY lawyer deputed to make the company’s case and outwit or persuade Larry out of his hostile takeover.   But he fascinates her, as pythons do.   

   

 

      The action is a series of duels and confrontations, and in the first half has trouble holding interest unless you really enjoy share-dealing intricacy  (though Bea’s donut-carousel is the most magnificent prop of the season so far).    It heats up nicely  in the second half with some treacheries and twists,   not always from a predictable direction.      Kate has some startling  pre-Weinstein moments with the appalling Larry.  And there are lines which, in the year of Trump’s arrival here,  and a time when workforce welfare is rarely top of the financial world’s priorities,  are telling. 

   “What about the planet?”

   “Sold for scrap”

   “What about the workforce?”

   “It’s called maximizing profit. Restructuring”

   ‘So restructuring means you never have to say you’re sorry?” “Yep”

   “How can you live with yourself?”  “I have to. Nobody else will”. 

 

box office  southwarkplayhouse.co.uk   to 11 May

rating three

 

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ALL MY SONS                   Old Vic, SE1

GUILT, GRIEF  AND PITY

 

  It is almost uncanny how an Arthur Miller play, treated respectfully, can in the most wrenchingly extreme story still catch the common rhythms and tides of family and neighbourhood.  Banter,  mild irritation,  passing jokes and  irrelevances ebb and flow even as the hard relentless current beneath is pushing the tragedy forward.  It makes it real.  No gimmicky signposts or updatings needed:    as our breath shortens we are right where it is, in smalltown 1948 America wounded by war.   It is a day when a three-year-old tragedy has risen sharply into focus:  the dead son Larry’s memorial tree blows down, his former girl-next-door fiancée Annie has been invited down from New York by the surviving brother Chris. And the mother, tidying up,  finds the dead airman’s old baseball glove.

  

 

        Jeremy Herrin’s direction respects this sense of a precise moment in time :  there is only one bravura staging effect in Max Jones’ set,  as the cosy wooden house physically shimmers forward  out of a video of wartime footage at the opening,  and retreats into darkness in the end as the blighted son stands alone.    Apart from that, in this single garden setting a magnificent cast carry its truth unhindered. 

   

  Bill Pullman is perfect  casting as Joe:   the “man’s man” and patriarch,  whose aircraft components factory did well out of the war.  He cherishes the surviving son,  Colin Morgan’s deftly impressive Chris, and  amiably tolerates having his less-educated language  corrected by his heir.   You might see momentarily a relaxed, successful alpha man, cheerfully joshing with the doctor, with the eccentric Frank who reads horoscopes  and a neighbour’s small boy playing detectives.   But even in the first scenes Pullman can with delicate subtlety suggest a tamped-down, unadmitted unease.  One bad thing happened,   one piece of sharp practice in the bustle of wartime provisioning…

 

        Equally subtle  is Sally Field as his wife Kate: who  suddenly, electrifyingly,  moves  in a heartbeat from mumsy hospitality to relating a dream she had in the stormy night:  her boy Larry looking down from his cockpit as it spun downward, calling for her, falling, in the roar of engines.    Hairs bristle on your neck: that is exactly how dreams go after a disaster:   a repeated journey to an edge , a helpless anticipation before you wake in dread.   But Field returns with unnerving naturalness to the homely madness of the denial that sustains her:.  Larry isn’t dead. He’ll reappear.   “Certain things can never happen”.

   

      But they did. The remorseless  tide runs on:   below the courtship of Annie and Chris, through moments of laughter, neatly unfolding back-story and the arrival of Annie’s brother as avenging and accusing angel, yet one with a moment’s touching vulnerability  – Oliver Johnstone does it marvellously –   as he almost succumbs to the charm of an old neighbourhood and Joe’s comforting  manliness.     

 

      It is an intimate, unshowy production:  its only fault – in the unforgiving acoustic of the Old Vic and with its barely raked seating – is some audibility problems, and even Herrin succumbs to the incurable mistake of many directors:   sitting actors on the floor, downstage,  for  important intimate conversations so only the tall can see them.    But aside from that quibble it has real greatness.    Stark truths and the futility of denial vibrate through the last powerful scenes : the banality of a single fault and the guilty lies beyond it have a terrible pathos.   The tragic flaw of putting “business” before the eternal finicky responsibility of the engineer is there in Chris’ howl : “Kids were hanging in the air by those [cylinder] heads”.     Whether Joe’s acceptance and fate are redemptive is for us to decide:  the key recognition is  that it doesn’t matter whose boys died in which planes.  They are all his sons.  Kate’s final departure,  hunched and hobbling under the weight of reality,   breaks your heart. 

 

boxoffice  oldvictheatre.com   to 8 june

rating four  4 Meece Rating

           

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SWEET CHARITY Donmar WC1

(Published in Daily Mail on Friday, one must moonlight to support this website’s unfunded free existence –   but here it is  for theatrecat regulars..)

 

       The minute you walk in the joint (Hey, big spender!), the trumpets and sax blare an impertinent welcome and you’re in the right dive.   Director Josie Rourke’s last hurrah, after running this smart little theatre for seven years, is a real Easter egg:   an indulgent treat recklessly overdecorated with mad props ,walking-billboards, a flock of stepladders and an over-the-top 1960’s nightclub scene with the entire chorus dressed as Andy Warhols. 

        

  But to hell with the good-taste police: Lent is nearly over,  and  every number is irresistible.  Neil Simon and Cy Coleman’s musical, fizzing with Dorothy Fields’ smart lyrics,  tells one of the world’s most enduring love stories, echoed from grand opera to  Tess of the d’Urbervilles.  A  young woman with a past falls happily in love with a respectable man who can’t, in the end,  overlook her sexual history.  Even if she was powerless,  seduced or, like Charity Hope Valentine, with little choice but the sleazy life of a taxi-dancer fondled for dimes ,“Stuck on the flypaper of life”.  The old story still works today, as the MeToo era reminds us how pretty girls get preyed on and shamed.   

   

      The glorious Anne-Marie Duff is Charity,  the rashly generous, constantly betrayed nightclub ‘hostess’  whose only friends are the other girls.  She is one of our finest serious actresses,   with a marvellous face – ah, those mournful downturned brows – which turns in a flicker from mischief to bottomless weary woe.   She is not known or trained for musicals , so surprise as well as delight met her husky-voiced  energy and sweet physical wit.   By the time Arthur Darvill as her geeky beloved Oscar let her down,  every man in the audience and most of us women were helplessly, indignantly in love with the woman.  

           In the small space the dances are spectacular, and  Wayne McGregor’s choreography richly expressive.  On one hand we have the aggressive,  sprawlingly sexy  moves of the scowling girls in the club, wide-legged and jerky in Bob-Fosse style like broken robot Barbies: “We don’t dance – we defend ourselves to music”.   But when Charity is herself,  naively dazzled by meeting  the movie star Vittorio, daydreaming about a better life  or parading triumphantly with “I’m a Brass band!”, it’s quite different.   She shrugs and skips and clowns and wriggles, clutching her shiny minidress like a little girl,  graceful and artless and human in lovely contrast with her  seedy life of paid-for snogs and weary bumps and grinds.   She’s adorable. Her final betrayal is painfully shocking, even if you know the show well.     

    

  There’s a famous guest-spot with “The Rhythm of Life”,  by Daddy Brubeck the spliff-wielding pastor leading a jazz-revivalist meeting .   On press night Daddy B,  terrorizing poor shy Oscar, was Adrian Lester with a spangled T shirt and helpless grin.    Here’s  another stage A-lister not known for an ability to dance.  That showed,  hilariously, but he was having such an  indecent amount of fun than when Le Gateau Chocolat takes over on the 29th I fully expect to see Mr Lester outside, hanging around,  hoping for another go. .who wouldn’t?

rating four     4 Meece Rating

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THREE SISTERS Almeida, N1

DOWNBEAT, DOWNCAST  

 

    Some years ago, leaving a particularly slow and uninspiring Chekhov performance in Yorkshire (never mind which play, spare the blushes)   I heard a weary man saying to his partner “Eh!  they were well overdue for that revolution!”.   Which is not how you should feel after one of the master’s plays.   This one – like several others – is about  household claustrophobia,  unfulfilled passion, mutual irritation,  disappointment and the fact that in some lives only stoicism and resignation will do.  Yet Anton Chekhov’s humour,  sense of character and artful observation of human ridiculousness can carry you beyond depression and leave you – even in the case of an Uncle Vanya ! –  oddly uplifted.

   

      But it can misfire. This – adapted into nicely rendered modern demotic speech by Cordelia Lynn – is directed again by Rebecca Frecknall,  whose plangent, rather beautiful Summer and Smoke won two Oliviers –  one for best-actress for Patsy Ferran (here again, as the eldest sister Olga).  Only one piano this time rather than a crescent of nine,  but the director chooses the same spare, open staging,  beginning with 18 mismatched chairs and the cast in a mimetic-balletic sequence as if at a strange funereal ritual. 

 

    Appropriate enough, since the three sisters and their brother are marking, on young Irina’s birthday, the anniversary of their father’s death.  But this is a play about households,  the grating ennui of trapped women and the hostility that grows between the clever, intellectually and emotionally frustrated sisters holding on to old ways and values and  their brother’s encroaching  , ruthlessly nouveau wife Natasha (Lois Chimimba, splendidly merciless).  And in the very long first half  (it’s a three-hour evening) to be honest the ennui is passed on to us, with interest.  The play sags, feels dangerously static, and delivers almost none of the dry humour available in the text.   

 

The performances are fine:  Ferran’s weary schoolmistress Olga,  Pearl Chanda’s sardonic, bored Masha with her growing obsessive love for the stumblebum husband (Elliott Levey, beautiful comic timing) and a sweet Irina (Ria Zmitrowicz)  who later moves from romping enthusiasm to despair and final determination with delicate strength.  

 

      After the interval , mercifully,  in mood and pace it could be a different play:  the action of course increases with the fire, the cracking of marriages, Natasha’s increasing horribleness,  the duel and the epic drunkenness and disillusion of the old doctor ( Alan Williams, a great treat ),    The lighting is still deliberately dim .  mainly Anglepoises and the odd candle throughout, until the last outdoor scene  ,  but the play finally starts to  crackle with energy and tension, as it should.   Natasha’s odd perch overhead , finely lit and still on the stairs,  creates a real edge of necessary menace.  The last great speeches from the Baron and from Andrey hit home;   and there is real shock of pathos in  Masha’s desperate clinging to her lover, the unresponsively callous Vershinin,  as her husband heroically consoles her.    I left happy enough. But goodness, the first scenes badly need more vigour.  And a trim.

 

box office 0207 359 4404 

rating  three     3 Meece Rating

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